The Politics    Monday, September 18, 2023

Plibersek versus the environment

By Rachel Withers

Image of Tanya Plibersek speaking during Question Time

Environment Minister Tanya Plibersek during Question Time last week, September 13, 2023. Image © Lukas Coch / AAP Images

Labor slams nuclear, but goes to court to defend coal

It was clear where the government wanted our attention today. Climate and Energy Minister Chris Bowen this morning presented costings showing that it would take $387 billion to replace Australia’s retiring coal plants with nuclear reactors – 20 times the price of Labor’s Rewiring the Nation fund – in a “pre-emptive strike” against the nuclear-obsessed Coalition. Speaking on RN, Bowen labelled nuclear energy “a unicorn and a fantasy”, suggesting that either consumers or taxpayers would end up footing the bill. The opposition’s newfound fetish is of course ridiculous, and it must be exasperating for Bowen to constantly be asked to justify the cost of renewables while the Coalition makes uncosted claims about nuclear power. But where, many are asking, is the modelling showing the cost of continuing to expand fossil fuels, as the Albanese government seems intent on doing? What will Labor’s ongoing coalmine approvals cost us in the long run, in terms of both economic damage and environmental degradation?

That is among the questions being asked of Environment Minister Tanya Plibersek, who is being taken to court over two recent coal approvals – the first legal challenge to a coal or gas decision made by the Albanese government. The minister’s decision is being disputed by the Environment Council of Central Queensland, represented by Environmental Justice Australia, which argues that she has a “legal responsibility to face up to the harm new coal and gas will cause”. Plibersek has been joined in her defence by the two coal companies involved, Narrabri Coal Operations and MACH Energy, in what is an incredibly awkward look for Labor. “Lawyering up with the coal companies to defend the expansion of fossil fuels is defending the indefensible,” said Greens environment spokesperson Sarah Hanson-Young, repeating calls for a “climate trigger”.

Plibersek now finds herself in a similar position to her predecessor, Sussan Ley, in fighting for coal against the environmental groups arguing that she has a legal responsibility to listen to the science. “We didn’t want it to come to this, but we’re relieved these climate cases are now before the Court,” said council president Christine Carlisle in a statement. “The minister’s decision to refuse to act on the climate science is not only, we argue, legally wrong, but feels like a betrayal to the Australians who voted in favour of climate action.” It’s worth noting that Plibersek was just last week boasting about having saved the Great Barrier Reef from an “in danger” listing, and is now being sued for failing to protect it.

Of course, any time would be an awkward time for a Labor Left minister to be standing with coalmining companies against environmental groups. But with growing concerns about the “tough summer” ahead, and much of the country already facing heatwave conditions, Plibersek’s actions seem downright unconscionable. The Australian Red Cross is today calling on Australians to prepare for emergencies, as new research predicts that 58 per cent of Australians are going to be impacted by heatwaves over the next 12 months, while the insurance industry is coming under increasing pressure regarding climate change, with home owners and small businesses struggling to afford cover.

It’s unclear whether the Environment Council of Central Queensland will succeed in its case against Plibersek and the coal companies – although, as Carlisle notes, if it does, it will “set a precedent that all new coal and gas projects must be properly assessed for their climate risk to our environment”. But the coming summer looks as though it will create its own kind of precedent, with a conflagration of factors setting Australians up for a dangerous time. It’s ludicrous, as Bowen argued today, that the Coalition is trying to have this nuclear debate when it’s clear that renewables are the most cost-effective option. But it’s just as ludicrous that we are still having a legal debate over the ongoing expansion of fossil fuels when we all understand the damage that it will do.

Rachel Withers

Rachel Withers is the contributing editor of The Politics.


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